I knew it was coming.
One of the things I expected to learn when we took on this lifestyle was how to turn the animals we raised into the food we ate. I can’t say I was looking forward to it. But, I was committed to the idea that if I was going to raise the animals for meat, then it was my responsibility to make sure the animals’ transition from living creature to dinner was as humane and respectful as possible. Besides, I have no trouble buying a whole chicken and cutting it into parts. Surely, starting from a living, feathered chicken couldn’t be THAT much different. Or difficult.
Except, everyone I asked who had grown up on a farm or slaughtered a chicken told me how horrible the experience was, how the blood spurted and the chicken ran, and so forth. Then they’d hold forth on how backbreaking plucking a chicken is, hours and hours of work to process just a few chickens.
Thank heavens for Joel Salatin’s book Pastured Poultry Profits. Not only is it a great book for anyone thinking of raising chickens, but he includes a complete description of the slaughtering/cleaning process WITH PICTURES! For people like me (are there any?) who believe they can learn anything from reading a book, this was perfect.
Even more important, the process he describes seemed so much more humane than chopping off the creature’s head and waiting for a frantic nervous system to wind down. Instead, he puts the chicken into a “killing cone”, so they hang upside down with their heads out of the bottom of the cone. An upside down chicken is a calm chicken. I’m not sure it’s true but it’s said they go into almost a sleep state when their upside down. Anyway, once they’re in the cone and calm, Joel uses a (very) sharp knife to cut the artery in the neck while avoiding the windpipe so the still-pumping heart will drain the blood. Done properly, the chicken dies quickly and calmly. Then the chicken is dipped up and down in 145-150 degree water for a minute or two–no more or you’ll cook the chicken–so the warm water can loosen the feathers. By adding a bit of soap to this water you also clean the chicken. After that, the chicken goes into his automated plucker, then the eviscerating begins. He had step-by-step directions for that process, too.
I read that section again and again, pouring over those pictures, screwing up my courage. I ordered two killing cones from featherman.net and salivated over the automated plucker–a mere $1500 and way out of reach for someone with less than 20 chickens to process. I went to our local Habit for Humanities ReStore resale store and bought an old stainless steel sink and a base to hold it. Green Acres came with two solid wood panels from a long-gone dining room table. These made a great chopping board. I bought a propane-fired turkey fryer to use for my water. (It works great as long as I remember to keep turning the little timer dial.) All I was missing was the right knife. But what was the right knife?
Everyone I asked offered the same response: a corn knife used on top of an old tree stump. Um, that’s the old paradigm while I’m committed to a new one. That’s when I realized I needed to ask the right person and he turned out to be my friend Bob Haugland who is an avid bow hunter who has a little knife sharpening business on the side. He made me two knives he thought might work for me.
At last I couldn’t avoid the moment any longer. The morning cacophony of roosters was becoming the every-minute-of-the-day cacophony. Ed helped me set up on the metal bridge over the gully that is supposed to channel raging rainwater from the mountain above us into the Mason ditch. Time and some serious storms have somewhat altered the water path. But the bridge is flat and easy to hose off, and the hose is long enough to reach it from the pump house. We tied our cone to a metal stake and drove it into the ground at an angle so it hung out over my metal sink. A bucket went under the open drain to catch the blood. Another bucket stood by, ready to be filled with feathers.
I put the first rooster into the cone. Ed walked about fifteen feet back from me. His face grayed. He sent me a panicked look and turned his back.
“What are you doing?” I asked him.
“Supporting you,” he said without turning his head. “You shouldn’t have to do this alone. I’m going to eat them, too.”
How sweet! That’s my guy. I went over and gave him a hug. “Go. I’m fine. I need to do this by myself.” And I did. Leah and Elana had both offered to help. I couldn’t ask them, not for this first bird. I needed to find my own peace with what I was doing before I could include others.
He breathed a huge sigh of relief. “Thank you,” he said and disappeared.
That left me staring at the chicken in the cone who was staring back at me. I contemplated the complexities of philosophy. I considered converting back to a Vegetarian. I fingered the knife. I touched the chicken’s neck, and the enormity of what I intended to do hit home. I was going to steal his life away from him.
Then I reminded myself that he had no trouble attacking and hurting our other birds. Everything on a farm has a place and a function. There’s no room for things that “destroy the harmony of the flock” as Ed so nicely put it.
I won’t go into further detail about the moment I put the knife to his neck except to say that I did my best. The chicken died and I thanked him for being a good teacher.
With Joel’s book sitting open on the concrete pillar, I started the process. Into the water the chicken went, dunking up and down. Out on the planks. I pulled at the feathers. They zipped right out of the skin, coming out far more easily than anyone I’d talked to would have had me believe. Then again, no one I’d talked to had done the hot water dunk either.
Joel suggests pulling the chicken’s head off. That wasn’t something I could manage to figure out from a picture, so I chopped instead. The feet went next. Then it was time to clean it. First I opened the skin above the breast and discovered the crop, the chicken’s pre-stomach. Wow, who knew?
With that loosened and skin pulled back, I turned the chicken over and found the oil gland on top of the tail and removed that. Then I flipped the bird over, put my hand on the breast bone and started to loosen the skin at the bottom of the breast bone.
“Bleaaaah,” the chicken moaned quietly.
I nearly dropped my knife. All my spiritual confidence of the previous moment faltered.
I touched the chicken again. “Bleaaaaah,” it said again.
I touched it again and this time saw the top of the windpipe move as it sighed. I think I giggled. Every time I pressed the breast, air escaped through the windpipe and the chicken’s voicebox, or whatever passes for one in a chicken, made a noise.
Reassured I wasn’t going to be haunted by this rooster for the rest of my days, I set to opening up the body cavity. Before long was I following the instructions that said to slip my hand into the cavity, keeping my hand pressed up against the “keel” bone (I thought keels were in boats) as I snaked my fingers up to the top of the body where I was to use a finger to grab the windpipe. After that, I was to pull all the entrails out of the body in fell swoop.
In my case that was swell foop. Intestines, gizzard, liver and gall bladder exited. I couldn’t catch the windpipe. I finally ended up pulling it out from the top. I had to scrape out the lungs. When I was done I had a pile of very interesting and surprisingly beautiful body parts, all headed straight for the compost heap. And next to that pile was something I recognized: the clean carcass of a chicken, ready to be made into a meal.